SEATTLE – It seems like a vague memory now, but the biggest story when Mariners camp opened way back in mid-February was Franklin Gutierrez – his new, chiseled body, the fact he had conquered his stomach issues, and the line drives and long blasts that were echoing off his bat at the Peoria Sports Complex. Visions of a monster breakthrough season by Gutierrez danced in everyone’s head.
All that became moot, of course, on Feb. 28 when Gutierrez, after feeling a twinge during a throwing drill, left the field, hopped into a car with an assistant trainer, and drove away for medical tests. The diagnosis was a pectoral injury, and the hopes of Gutierrez making an early impact on the Mariners was torn asunder. His rehab was complicated by a plantar fasciitis problem, and now Gutierrez is in Tacoma on a rehab assignment, still trying to make his way back to Seattle, more than three months later.
Michael Saunders, meanwhile, was not prominent in the Mariners’ plans when camp opened. I don’t think it’s a stretch to think that if Gutierrez had stayed healthy, Saunders was ticketed for Tacoma, coming off a troubled year in which he introduced himself to Eric Wedge and the new coaching staff by hitting .149 in 58 games. That left Saunders’ career average in 204 games at .196. Everyone recognized his raw talent and athleticism, but at some point, you run out of chances to show that you can actually transform that potential into reality.
Gutierrez’s injury gave Saunders one more chance, and to his credit, he’s run with it. Sprinted, actually. First, he solidified his spot on the team by hitting .356 in spring training to clinch the center-field job vacated by Gutierrez.. And now he is rapidly developing into one of the most productive players in the league at that position.
Since his average dipped to .219 on May 12, Saunders has gone .344/.394/.511 (.905 OPS) over his last 24 games. Overall, he’s at .277/.346/.462 (.807), with six homers (and 16 doubles) and 20 RBIs.
Those numbers will play in this league (though Saunders, like most everyone else on the team, still has to show he can produce at Safeo Field). It’s to the point now that if and when Gutierrez returns to the Mariners, Wedge wouldn’t even think of taking Saunders out of the lineup. He’ll get creative to find ways to keep his bat (and glove) in there — an amazing turnaround for a guy slated for Triple-A.